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The Soryteller and the Sultan's Son

(Copyright 2008 Ruth Keyes)

 

Once upon a long ago and far away time, O my children, there lived in a distant country a Sultan and his son. Now it can not be said that this Sultan was an unkind man, or ruled his family unjustly, but he was advancing in years, and thus looking beyond his final sunset, when his son   Khayim  would become the Sultan in his place. To this end, the Sultan was intent on providing his son with three things; the highest of education, the richest of wealth and a bride. And so it is with young   Khayim, then of an age where the laws of the land decreed that he should marry, that our story will begin.

            The Sultan sent his viziers throughout all the farthest reaches of distance, seeking for a Princess to wed his only son, and for a year and a day the viziers traveled across the world. They sought to the east, where the finest camels raced like flame across the shimmering sands of the desert. They sought to the West, where jewels of great beauty and fabulous worth lay scattered beneath the soil. They sought to the South, where music and mages and mystics dwelt in the far reaching mountains. And when a year and a day had passed, the Sultan's viziers had found the three most eligible Princesses in the entire world, and brought them back to the palace that the Sultan's son might choose himself between them.

            Now   Khayim  was a wise boy, and clever as it happens, and he had found himself with a year and a day to ponder the question of his future, and so it was that when the three Princesses arrived from the furthest corners of the world, he decided that he would devise a plan, to find a way to see them as they really were.

 

            The advent of the Princesses arrival brought crowds to surround the palace and fill the city, and with them many adventurers, seeking their hopes and their fortune. Among the travelers to Palace that day, was a beautiful young girl whose name was Alayah. She was a storyteller by trade, as her ancestors had been before her, and though it had broken her heart to bid farewell to her family, Alayah had turned her face and heart to the desert, and joined the adventurers streaming toward the city of the Sultan. Hoping to find a place in the palace as a teller of tales, Alayah had dressed in her brightest clothes and scarves and bracelets, and  though her face was tawny from the sun, and  her finery was worn and dusty from the desert, surely no one noticed this when she began to spin her stories. For Alayah had what her father, and her father's father before him had passed down to their sons and their Daughters - Alayah had The Gift.

            When she spoke, even the tendrils of heat that spiraled from the desert, paused to hover and listen, and the gold of the sand and the white of the sky took it an honor to stand as her stage and her Curtain.

 

 

     Slipping deftly through the crowd on the day of The Arrivals, Alayah stood on tiptoe and tried to see over the heads of the people that surrounded the palace, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the Prince or the Sultan, but to her disappointment, the throng pressed tightly around her, and she found herself pushed further and further away from the door.  Breathless but determined, the girl stepped back against the hot stones of the garden wall, and nearly fell backward as the door against which she was leaning suddenly opened.

            Alayah held her breath. Here was the backmost gate to the gardens in the courtyard of the Palace, left unlatched by some oversight or miracle, and there, just ahead in the shade of three silken canopied pavilions, reclined the three visiting Princesses.  As the main gates opened outward on the other side of the courtyard, and the noble friends of the Sultan's household thronged through the high barred entrance, Alayah found a position near the ornate tiled fountain, and smiled at all assembled, as she cast her eyes over the swirling sights and colors of the gardens and bazaar. Surely here, in the shadow of the Palace of the great and mighty Sultan, there would be a thousand new stories to  tell!

           

            In the corner of the courtyard, a Beggar knelt by the base of the fountain, his hands cupped under the running water. Anyone watching closely would have noticed that rather than washing his face clean, the Beggar was coating dust onto his cheeks and forehead, as if to hide his features. He was clad in rags and scraps and tatters, and walked slouching clumsily, to hide the bold stride and royal bearing that would have otherwise marked him as the only Son of the Sultan.  In his disguise, he was ragged and nameless and faceless as well, and no one in the courtyard ever would have recognized him, even had they looked into his eyes. This was exactly what the Sultan’s Son had hoped for.  Smiling somewhat grimly, he raised his eyes to the Princesses pavilions, tugged his rags more firmly into place, and set off purposefully toward them.

            He found the first of the Princesses lounging on scented cushions in a silken tent of richest lavender and purple, spread before her a feast that would have fed half the poor in the kingdom, had they been allowed to touch it. Smiling politely, the disguised Prince approached her and begged for a bite from her table. Angry, the Princess from the East ordered him away, though her table was laden with spiced meats, rare fruits and sweet confections, straight from the kitchens of the Palace.

            "This feast is to celebrate the engagement of the Son of the Sultan!" she told the Beggar haughtily and harshly. "And surely the Prince will choose me! Am I not beautiful beyond compare? How dare you come to stand beside me and gaze unasked upon my face? My beauty is such that only the Sultan's own son should deserve to enjoy it! Go now from this place, before I have you thrown into prison!"

            With that, the Princess turned from him, and   Khayim shook his head. The Princess Aljeleha indeed was beautiful, but - as   Khayim had already suspected - this was not all there was to know. As the disguised Prince stepped from the pavilion to go, he felt at his ragged sleeve the touch of a slim brown hand, and pressed into his dusty fingers, a loaf of coarse brown bread. 

            Alayah smiled at the Beggar. "Take this and eat, hungry Brother", she smiled, leaving him in the shade beside the fountain. "I can tell a tale and earn another for my own."

 With that she disappeared into the crowd, leaving the Prince staring in astonishment at the gift in his hand. It was plain and humble indeed, poorer and rougher than anything he ever had eaten. But from the lovely girl in faded clothing it was a great act of kindness; for it was all that she had.

 

             Khayim found the second Princess reclining in a pavilion of satin blue and silver, her cushions richly embroidered with threads that shimmered in the sunlight, and her head and feet and fingers bedecked with an array of gemstones that dazzled in the light of the courtyard. Sipping rich wine from a flagon bejeweled with diamonds, the Princess drew back in anger when Khayim asked softly for a drink to sustain him.

            "How dare you even approach me!" cried the Princess, snatching away the flagon and her goblet, though he had not tried to touch them. "This wine will toast the engagement of the Sultan's only Son. And surely it is I that he will choose - am I not wealthy beyond compare?  You may drink from the dirty washing water in the bucket,  for that is good enough for the likes of you. Go now from my riches, or I will have you beheaded!"

      With that, the Princess from the West turned from him, and Khayim shook his head. The Princess Riantah indeed was wealthy, but - as Khayim had already suspected - this was not all there was to know.

            As he turned to leave the pavilion, a gentle hand took him again by the shoulder, and Alayah brought him to the wall of the garden, where she squeezed into a clay bowl the juice from three pomegranates. The fruits were small, and warm from the sun, her earnings entire for the tale which she had just told. It was a plain enough offering for the only Son of the Sultan, but again the gift was priceless beyond compare, for she offered all that was hers.

 

            Khayim found the third Princess reposing in a pavilion of tapestries, scarlet and gold, surrounded on all sides by scrolls and maps and books of every description. Bowing politely to her highness, he asked her for a tale, to while away the time until the Sultan and his Son emerged from the Palace, but the Princess snapped shut the book she was holding, and looked at him with contempt. "I am the most learned Princess in the history of my Kingdom!" she derided. "I am here to converse with the Son of the Sultan, not with a filthy Beggar from the streets of the bazaar! As for tales, they are foolish and wasteful, and no knowledge will ever be gained from them. Shall you not treat me with respect? The Son of the Sultan is sure to choose me for his Bride, for I am learned beyond compare! Now away from my presence this moment, or I will have you tortured!" With that the Princess from the South flung a scroll at the Beggar, then stood and flounced into the pavilion. Khayim sighed and shook his head. The Princess Bellatur indeed was learned. But though she had studied with mages and masters, and commanded over fourteen different languages, still it seemed as though she did not know words of kindness in any of them. As Khayim had already suspected, her learning was not all there was to know.

            The soft sound of rueful laughter danced across the courtyard, and Khayim turned to see the same young girl who had befriended him before.

            "Poor Brother Beggar!" she smiled. "Will you find no friend at all in the city of the Sultan? Come with me - a tale I can offer, and with all free will I give it."

            Khayim stared, amazed, at the beauty that was her eyes and her laugh and her kindness, and scarcely knowing what it was that compelled him, he followed her to the corner of the bazaar. He did not know her reason. He did not know her name. But there was one thing of which he was certain; her smile was the glow of the sunrise on the farthest edge of the horizon, shimmering, glowing, and bursting always with promise.

            As he watched amazed from the doorway, the people gathered around her, and she began to weave a tale so exquisite that soon every voice in the courtyard had stilled to listen, and her tale washed magically over them, like the sound of raindrops in evening, magic woven at midnight, and cooling breezes in the desert. So eloquently did Alayah speak them, that her words seemed to come alive on their own, swirling through the air around her like tangible beings, dancing amid the myriad colors of the   flags and tents of the bazaar, before winding like smoke and incense and illusions around the very spires of the Palace. Khayim stood and watched her and found himself suddenly breathless.

            Caught up in the story which she spun for them, the disguised Son of the Sultan never saw the guards approaching until they had seized him by the shoulders and thrown him to the sand.  Charging him with offending the honored guests of the Sultan’s son, they dragged him from the marketplace, rough against the stones and tents and corners, as the three Princesses watched him go with satisfied smiles, among the reproachful mutters of the crowd.

            Her story shattered like rainbow shards on the sand around her, Alayah turned to the leader and implored him to show mercy. "He has done no wrong!" she protested, stumbling and falling as the guard shoved her roughly in the path of an approaching merchant and his camels. Enraged by their treatment of her, Khayim turned with fury on his countenance, but a blow from the guard brought him  to his knees. They would neither heed his words nor believe his identity; he was sentenced to death at nightfall.

 

            Bruises, cuts and anger filling him with equal pain and fury, Khayim spent the next hours in a dank and filthy cell locked behind iron bars. Any attempt to speak with the guards or prove his true name and standing had met with abuse and insults, until in despair Khayim had resorted to silence. He knew the severity of his danger - the Sultan never set foot in the dungeons of the palace guards. Filthy and battered, the Sultan’s son would likely not be recognized by anyone but his Father. The mistake might never be discovered, and in his heart, Khayim could only fear the worst, come nightfall.

            As evening threatened across the dusky bars of the window, the Guards left him hungry and forsaken, and went to coax rich food and wineskins from the maids in the palace kitchen. The keys they left behind were forgotten, unattended and hopelessly out of reach. Khayim couldn't bear to look at them.

            Sighing, the only son of the Sultan turned his thoughts to the bazaar that morning, and the beautiful teller of tales that alone had shown him kindness. Her face and her story danced in his memory, filling him with loneliness and with sorrow, and he wished with all his heart that he were listening to her now.

            As if his thoughts had conjured her there, a slim silent figure slipped from the gloom of the dungeon stairway, and took the keys from the table.

            Khayim was completely dumbfounded.” Are you spirit or phantom?" he whispered, trying to peer through the shadows, "Come here to mock me in my torment?"

            Alayah eyed him squarely. "If you can not be sensible," she answered, "at least be quiet! I have to find which key will open the door."

            Silenced, Khayim pushed himself upright, as the sounds of music and revelry drifted in through the window. Little did the people in the Palace courtyard know, the Sultan's Son would not be soon attending them!

            Concentration written across her shadowed features, Alayah at last found a key that fit, and was rewarded by the sound of turning, grinding metal. As Khayim slipped from the cell into the hallway, she locked the door behind him and returned the keys to the table. Mischief dancing in her eyes, she led him up the stairway.
            "We'll leave the keys and let them wonder how you escaped!" she smiled, and then turned her attention to leading them through the courtyard and out into the city.

The moon was rising in the heavens before the girl stopped turning to glance over her shoulder, and Khayim was weak with weariness and hunger by the time she stepped into the doorway of a little dwelling close by the walls of the city.

            "I traded the Master here tales for food and for sleeping space", she explained, pulling him through a low doorway and into a shed perhaps a third the size of his closet at the palace. "Eat - you must be famished."
            With that she gave him food and drink and kindness for the fourth time that day, and turned to light a candle as he availed himself of the dry bread and cheese and figs that she offered. He enjoyed them more than any feast he ever had attended.

      The long hours of darkness wound by like silver threads shot through a silken scarf worn by the dancing midnight. Throughout the hushed and dim lit hours of the night Khayim and the storyteller spoke of many things, sharing thoughts and dreams, ideas and hopes and visions with voices that reflected a tender and new found friendship. From her past, Alayah wove tapestries of memory, painting them with the soft blush of dawn over the desert and the sound of drums and dancing. Khayim was captivated, by both the tales and by the teller, and though the night seemed to be endless, at the same time it was over far too soon. Of himself Khayim revealed little, neither his name nor his birthright, for Alayah captured his hopes and his heart in such a way that his standing as son of the Sultan seemed unimportant and inconsequential. 

 

        As the sun began to paint rose tinted shadows over the sands outside the city, he hesitantly turned toward Alayah and laid his heart on his sleeve. “The son of the Sultan” he ventured. “What…what think you of him?” 

     Alayah paused, her dark eyes serious, and gazed out the tiny window at the rising dawn.

      “I…” she said softly, to Khayim’s surprise and consternation, “…pity him”. 

         Never in his life had Khayim been the object of less than awe and servitude, and the words of pity falling from the lips of this lovely girl astounded him.

     “Pity?” he repeated in confusion. “But the son of the Sultan, he…he has…”  Khayim paused in confusion as he strove to remember what riches the palace held that could possibly compare to the eyes and face and voice of the girl before him.

      “The Sultan’s son” murmured Alayah, “has no choice.” 

Khayim shook his head.

        “Choice?” he asked, at a loss for perhaps the first time in his life.

Alayah nodded.

         “It must be a grand thing to be the Son of a Sultan” she explained, reaching for a pile of coarsely woven blankets neatly folded by the wall. “But it is also a grand thing to be a singer, a wanderer, a teller of tales.  Perhaps…” she paused to giggle, “It is even a fine thing to be a seller of apples or a trader of camels! I would not know. But I…” she smoothed the blankets with gentle hands not unused to working, “I at least am free to find out.”

 Khayim stared at the candle, a new thought beginning to grow inside him.                                                                

          “And marrying a fine Princess?” he asked, not looking at Alayah. “How does that fit into your story?” 

 Alayah frowned for the first time.

      “It does not” she said flatly. “I would not trade a sour fig for any of those women, and you should not either, especially after the way they abused you. Can you not pity the poor son of the Sultan, married to one of that ilk?”  

Khayim sighed deeply, pitying the Sultan’s son for that very reason.

       “And you?” he asked, feeling suddenly breathless, “what say you to marrying wealth and position?”  Alayah smiled, and her face lit up the dark and shadowed room. “I want neither of those things, only a tale and firelight to tell it by.  I have no use for gold and grandeur… but adventure, freedom, even hardship? What a story those will make! Life is made up of stories. There is no greater gift in all of the Kingdoms than that.”  With that she blew out the candle and lay on the first of the blankets, offering him the second blanket with a gesture that set the bracelets on her wrist jingling softly. 

            “I would not marry one who gave me any treasure less than their heart, and a story to share with them. And neither should the Sultan’s Son.”  With that she closed her eyes and drifted into peace filled slumber, leaving Khayim to watch her in wonder as the sun rose over the marketplace.  When Alayah awoke, he was gone.

 

            When the sun again rose golden over the palace courtyard, Alayah took her place in the shadow of the fountain, waiting with all the others for a glimpse of the Prince and the Sultan. 

Khayim, washed and again dressed in his finery, had slipped into the palace by the backmost garden gate, and no one was any the wiser about his disappearance than they had been. 

           Refusing to explain his absence, and waiting only for the moment of the announcement, Khayim had eaten nothing and slept little, the image of a young desert-traveling storyteller filling his head and his heart.  He had never known anyone like Alayah, and he did not want to spend the rest of his life without her.        Thus it was that when all in the courtyard fell silent, and all faces were upraised, all eyes upon him, Khayim amazed the entire Kingdom, and especially the inhabitants of the palace, by leaving the grand dais and walking through the crowded courtyard with neither bodyguard nor servant. 

             As he approached the Princess Aljeleha she stole a self satisfied glance at her competitors, preparing to graciously accept the royal marriage proposal that she saw as her right. Her beautiful face was furious as Khayim passed her by and kept walking. When he approached the Princess Riantah,   her gloating gaze swept across the gathered multitude, and the set of her head and the glint in her eye was proprietary and greedy. Khayim passed her by as well. As the only son of the Sultan reached the edge of the courtyard, the Princess Bellatur stood, a gleam of triumph in her eyes and a haughty cast to her features. As Khayim passed her by also, her superior expression crumpled in  fury and disbelief, as the Sultan’s son crossed the path and knelt at the feet of a dusty and colorfully robed peasant girl, who had obviously traveled the desert on foot, lacking the coin to purchase travel.  The courtyard was as silent as the deepest moment of midnight, when Khayim took Alayah’s hand and vowed to marry only her. A moment later it burst into a chaos of shouting and uproar as the young storyteller, recognizing him at last as the beggar she had befriended, pulled her hand from his grasp and refused him. Turning in a flurry of multi-colored silks and scarves, Alayah raced to the hidden garden gate, and disappeared from sight.

            For three days, Khayim could not be consoled. For three days his Father demanded he make apology to the Princesses and choose one of them to marry, and for three days, Khayim swept from despair to confusion to desolation before at last arriving at humility.  He had offered Alayah grandeur and riches, silks and gold and jewels, a palace, rank and royal stature. He had avowed, he had proposed, he had assumed. He simply had not listened.  That night when the royal servants and the princely food tasters and the palace advisors arrived with his feast for the evening, the son of the Sultan was gone.

           

        The night had cast its shadowed silks over the bedouin campfire of the sun, when Alayah lit her own small fire, and sat to seek stories in the stars.  In the silence surrounding her, the sound of hoof beats and jingling harness heralded Khayim’s approach long before she saw him. Arriving in the circle of firelight at last, his proud horse bejeweled and tasseled and plumed, Khayim slipped from the tooled leather saddle once again wearing his beggars robes, and sent the horse back the way it had come with a slap on the haunch and nary a backward glance. 

Alayah raised an eyebrow.

 

 

 

            Khayim made no move to approach her, but stood at the edge of the campsite, raising only his eyes and voice to greet her.

            “I understand now” he said, his voice hoarse with thirst from his race across the desert. “You did not refuse me because I am the son of the Sultan. You refused me because I am a fool”.

A tiny smile danced on the edge of Alayah’s features.

            “Well” she said wryly, “I see you have learned something at least since last I spoke to you.”

 Khayim took courage and stepped toward her.

          “I offered you gold and jewels and riches” he admitted, “and position and station and luxury… but I did not offer you my heart.”

Alayah said nothing and Khayim took another step toward her.

           “I offer it now”

Alayah stood her ground, but shook her head, the firelight shimmering off of her spangled sleeves and the small gold hoops in her ears.

           “You say that you understand” she persisted, “yet still you ask me to be the wife of a Sultan’s son?”  Khayim closed the gap between them at last, and gently took her hand.

           “No” he said humbly, feeling more himself in beggar’s rags with her than he ever had in his finery at the palace.

 “I am asking to be the husband of a Storyteller”. 

Alayah stared at him in the firelight for a long while, as the nightwinds whispered their secrets across the sands of the desert.

            “You are saying that you will give up your palace…” she said guardedly, “your riches, your servants, your position, and follow me across the desert?” 

“Yes” Khayim whispered, the moonlight on his face revealing the truth of his words. “I will give up great riches and all that I have ever known, and follow you to the ends of the earth.  And think, just think!” his heart at last beat in time with Alayah’s as he smiled into her eyes.

 “Just think what a story that will make!”

 

The End

 

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